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Publications | July 26, 2022
2 minute read

DOJ Remains Focused on Combatting Opioid Misuse

Opioids are a class of drugs that includes not just the street drug heroin, but also prescription drugs such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, fentanyl, methadone and others. Unfortunately, these prescription medications are often misused — either prescribed unnecessarily or purchased illegally by individuals. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), on an average day, 3,900 people will illegally use a prescription opioid. And, each year, more than 70,000 individuals in the United States will die from an opioid overdose.

Opioid enforcement has been a longtime focus for the DOJ. In 2017, it launched the Opioid Fraud and Detection Unit designed to investigate and prosecute individuals, including physicians and pharmacists who violate the Controlled Substances Act and/or commit opioid-related health care fraud. The Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ’s Civil Division is also a key component of the effort to address violations of the law with entities and individuals throughout the opioid supply chain.

In February 2021, the civil division of the DOJ filed a complaint in the Middle District of Florida seeking to enjoin a Tampa-area physician, clinic and pharmacy from prescribing controlled substances, arguing that the physician had unlawfully written controlled substance prescriptions. Further, the pharmacy had failed to detect and react to “obvious” red flags when filling the prescriptions. Similar actions were taken by the DOJ in 2021 against pharmacists and pharmacies in Ohio and Maryland.

On the criminal front, the DOJ has continued to focus its prosecution efforts not just on street-level dealers, but also on physicians and pharmacists who they allege have unlawfully prescribed opioids. In March 2022, the DOJ announced the prison sentence of 16 Michigan and Ohio-area defendants, including 12 physicians who distributed 6.6 million opioid pills and submitted $250 million in false billings.

In May 2022, the DOJ, with the help of federal and state law enforcement partners, announced criminal charges against 14 defendants in eight federal districts across the United States for opioid distribution offenses. Twelve of those individuals are medical professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, dentists or former medical professionals.

As the DOJ continues its opioid focus, medical professionals who prescribe opioids and/or other controlled substances should expect to have their records scrutinized. Impacted individuals and entities should review and update their controlled substance policies regularly and provide continued trainings for their employees on the policy and how to identify red flags.

For more information, please contact Madelaine Lane or a member of the White Collar Criminal Defense Practice Group.

2022 Summer Associate Danica Bebble contributed to this eAlert.